Lincoln’s first inaugural address—or one section of it, anyhow—would be handed down as one of the nation’s greatest pieces of oratory. At the time, many listeners and readers found it alarming, if not appalling. Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass—who called it a “double-tongued document”—were shocked when the new President endorsed the pro-slavery amendment just passed by Congress. The speech, Douglass said, offered little hope “for the cause of our down-trodden and heart-broken countrymen”—that is, the slaves.
Secessionists bristled when Lincoln expressed his determination not to surrender federal property in the South—such as Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, a Union stronghold at the epicenter of the rebellion. One Southern senator, muttering among the dignitaries on the Capitol steps, hurried off to telegraph Charleston: “Inaugural means war . . . war to the knife and knife to the hilt.”
Hardly anyone remarked on the closing lines of Lincoln’s address, the peroration that would be quoted so often in centuries to come:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Lincoln’s plea failed to stave off the impending catastrophe. It would be more than four years before “the better angels of our nature” would again hold sway. In the meantime, that Southern senator’s prophecy would prove more accurate than the new President’s: There would indeed soon be war, to the knife and to the hilt. And one of the last lives it would claim would be Lincoln’s.
Within days after the South’s attack on Sumter in mid-April, troops began pouring into the capital. There were soon so many, one newspaperman reflected, that the streets at last resembled, in at least one respect, the imperial boulevards of Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg: Every third man you passed wore some sort of uniform. Troops bunked on makeshift cots among filing cabinets and display cases in the Patent Office, in the courtyard of the Treasury, even in the East Room of the White House.
In the Capitol, soldiers found the desk that until recently had been occupied by Jefferson Davis, bearing a placard with his name neatly inked. A custodian arrived to find the young men gouging chunks out of it with their bayonets, and he protested that it was the property not of the Confederate traitor but of the federal government they had just pledged their lives and honor to defend. Ignoring him, the soldiers divvied up the fragments as souvenirs.
These men formed the initial wave of many that would sweep through en route to the front lines. And with each influx of soldiers came other arrivals. First were ladies of pleasure—or business. “Beauty and sin done up in silk, with the accompaniment of lustrous eyes and luxurious hair, on every thoroughfare offer themselves for Treasury notes,” a Union officer wrote in his diary.
Of more significance were the federal bureaucracies that sprang up in support of the war effort. By the end of the conflict, the once-cozy War Department had overflowed into 11 nearby buildings. Doctors and nurses, clerks and mapmakers, supply contractors and stable hands all catered to the needs of the troops. The District’s population tripled in less than three years—from 61,000 in 1860 to nearly 200,000 by 1863. (The number of prostitutes, according to one block-by-block survey, totaled some 4,000.)
For a time, living conditions—and sanitation—grew worse. The Lincolns’ 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid in February 1862, possibly as a result of playing along the banks of the nearby canal. Yet by war’s end, the District was becoming a true city. An English tourist compared Pennsylvania Avenue—“full of life and motion,” crowded with street vendors, soldiers, trolley cars, carriages, government wagons, and throngs of pedestrians representing “a panorama of nationalities”—to New York City’s Broadway. And fortunes made during the wartime boom planted the seeds of further growth. A young man named Alexander Shepherd, who in 1861 had been a plumber’s assistant, was by 1865 a rising real-estate mogul who, as an urban developer and the city’s “Boss,” would soon transform Washington beyond recognition.
Perhaps the greatest transformation of all began in 1862, when Congress voted to abolish slavery in the District (while allocating funds to compensate masters for the loss of their “property”). Escaped slaves from Maryland, Virginia, and beyond—as many as 40,000—poured in, colonizing the neighborhoods and building the institutions that would form the foundations of today’s black community.
Less than a decade after the Civil War, an African-American newspaper—hailing the participation of blacks in local government, the passage of civil-rights laws, the founding of Howard University, and the establishment of thriving (though segregated) public schools—would declare: “Probably to a greater extent than elsewhere in the country is the equality of citizens in the matter of public rights accorded in the District of Columbia.” The sounds of the curfew bell and the slave auctioneer’s hammer were fading memories.
The would-be Thirteenth Amendment that Congress had passed on the morning of Lincoln’s inauguration would never be ratified. In its place, another Thirteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1865: not enshrining slavery but abolishing it throughout the newly reunited nation.
This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. It is an excerpt from "1861: The Civil War Awakening", the author's book.